The painful choices behing the making of the 9/11 museum

This story will be on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times but you can get an advance view now. I find the comments of readers very interesting, both in terms of their range and the depth of their emotion. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we’ll be running roundtables on some of the thorny questions that museum officials had to deal with and the public will be able to weigh in.

At Museum on 9/11, Talking Through an Identity Crisis

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

In eight years of planning a museum at the National September 11 Memorial, every step has been muddied by contention.

Published: June 2, 2012

“It seemed self-evident at the time: A museum devoted to documenting the events of Sept. 11, 2001, would have to include photographs of the hijackers who turned four passenger jets into missiles. Then two and a half years ago, plans to use the pictures were made public.

New York City’s fire chief protested that such a display would “honor” the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. A New York Post editorial called the idea “appalling.” Groups representing rescuers, survivors and victims’ families asked how anyone could even think of showing the faces of the men who killed their relatives, colleagues and friends.

The anger took some museum officials by surprise.

“You don’t create a museum about the Holocaust and not say that it was the Nazis who did it,” said Joseph Daniels, chief executive of the memorial and museum foundation.

Such are the exquisite sensitivities that surround every detail in the creation of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, which  is being built on land that many revere as hallowed ground. During eight years of planning, every step has been muddied with contention. There have been bitter fights over the museum’s financing, which have delayed its opening until at least next year, as well as continuing arguments over its location, seven stories below ground; which relics should be exhibited; and where unidentified human remains should rest.

Even the souvenir key chains to be sold in the gift shop have become a focus of rancor.

But nothing has been more fraught than figuring out how to tell the story.

The sunken granite pools that opened last Sept. 11 and that occupy the footprints of the fallen towers were designed as places to mourn and remember the dead. Yet nowhere on the plaza is there even a mention of the terrorist attacks that caused the destruction. The job of documenting and interpreting the history has been left to the museum, and it is an undertaking pockmarked with contradictions.

Alice Greenwald, the director of the new museum, and her team must simultaneously honor the dead and the survivors; preserve an archaeological site and its artifacts; and try to offer a comprehensible explanation of a once inconceivable occurrence. They must speak to vastly different audiences that include witnesses at the scene and around the globe, as well as children born long after the wreckage had been cleared. And many of those listening have long-simmering, deeply felt opinions about how the museum should take shape.

“Whose truth is going to be in that museum?” asked Sally Regenhard, whose son, Christian, a firefighter, died in the north tower.”

……[[continue reading]]


4 responses to “The painful choices behing the making of the 9/11 museum

  1. Thank you for the detailed article – I read it yesterday on the NY Times main page.

    I have been following Alice Greenwald’s work since last fall since I believe she has an interesting perspective on how to adequately respect both the historical and the contemporary aspects of September 11th. In a keynote address she gave last fall at a conference on “memory” she emphasized the importance of the eyewitnesses to a historical event – today concerning September 11th we have many eyewitnesses and a unique opportunity to incorporate into both the memorial and museum a range of personal perspectives that is essentially unprecedented (maybe the closest precedent for us as a community is the impromptu flower memorial you might see on the side of a highway for the victim of a drunk driver – there is an informalism and a harsh reality around that which simply cannot be captured directly in the work of a large organization such as the National September 11 Memorial or the Oklahoma City National Memorial).

    One of the frustrations for me right now as a family member is that, in many ways, the memorial itself is acting more like a museum than like a memorial / cemetery. I have been discussing this concern with senior management since October 2011 when I first became aware of the gap that exists between the immediate needs of personal memorial and the long-term needs of public memorial. The problems have more to do with the operating policies than with the design or construction – e.g., memorial candles are prohibited and leaving of items for loved ones is severely limited, as the plaza is cleared each day (the items are taken into the museum instead of being left on the plaza where the memorial community may experience them). The history of September 11th is continuing to be built each day – and for many people who were unable emotionally to connect with the community over the last ten years – the silent eyewitnesses – history will continue to emerge from those people over the next generation. It will be good for everyone if the personal expressiveness of all those who are emotionally connected to September 11th is encouraged each day, but that doesn’t mean the personal expressiveness needs to be archived into a museum when much of it would be better left on the plaza for the benefit of the memorial community.

    I know we all need to work together on this and the needs of both the public and the individuals need to be met. But just as the memorial and museum staff are tasked with preserving history for future generations, each individual family member or close friend is, today, tasked with preserving personal memorial for ourselves and our loved ones.

    On the whole, you might say that September 11th can be reduced to a limited number of artifacts and stories which can fit into a museum archive. But on the personal level, trying to fit a cemetery into a museum or public memorial just doesn’t work. Some of us really need the cemetery.

    • thanks for your thoughtful comment. In many ways, we’re still too close to the event for a museum, but I do think that the museum will look very different 10, 20 and 30 year from now. patti

  2. To be honest, I think we were too close to the event for a public memorial as well. I believe it would have been better to build a personal memorial and to build both a public memorial and museum much later, after this generation of eyewitnesses was no longer so emotionally connected to the land where this happened.

    It’s very unusual to build a public memorial to a personal tragedy so quickly – the only other one I can think of in the United States was in Oklahoma City, but that memorial also did not have attached to it the heavy burden of ten years of war and a country sharply divided over the right way to find peace.

    I agree that the museum will look very different over the years, and in that keynote address which Alice Greenwald gave last fall at the French Embassy she spoke about this idea – she said that the memorial and museum were experiments and labs where ideas would be tried out until the right answers were eventually found. I am glad she is on the staff for this project.

  3. Pingback: Comment on “The painful choices behing the making of the 9/11 museum” (Patricia Cohen) | Working Sandbox

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